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Barry the Banana Man
Still more themes of Australian identity and national myth-making.
For most of my youth, my mum would pick me and brother up after school. Southern Queensland in those days was an uncomfortable place: a growing infant community of new arrivals, lacking a sense of self or a literature or even a shared history, growing rapidly and carelessly over an ancient country. It was rare to find a building older than 20 years. We lived inland, in, or at least among, the bush – out past Mudgeeraba, a satellite village separated from the city of the Gold Coast by the Pacific Motorway. When I was there from 1996 - 2009, the motorway cut a line through the region as cultural as it was geographic.
Those of us to the west of the motorway claimed to be ‘in the hinterland’ whether we lived 45 minutes from the beach or 15. We understood ourselves to be different from the city folk – with their suburbs and rendered houses, beaches and flood plains, sunglasses and surfboards. We had space and trees and at least some sense of connection to the land. Hinterlanders took themselves, ourselves, to be the cultural descendants of something older, more “real”.
Springbrook in 2011, I think. Zenit + Porta.
We indulged in a kind of white Australian mythmaking by associating ourselves with the stories of the various families – the Franklins and the Lavers – who had first settled the area. We pondered the lives of the “pioneers” who got to work cutting down the old-growth at Springbrook, blunting their saws on (according to our myth) hardwoods as solid as rock. It was with them that our identification began and ended: the 150-year presence of white people in the area enough for us claim historical superiority over the newcomers; the 48,000-year presence of black people in the area somehow not enough to deter us from that myth.
Mum would pick us up in her light-gold Toyota. In my memory, it was always sweltering when she arrived, and, inside the car, the air conditioning would be roaring in the way air conditioners do when they know they are fighting a losing battle. To get home, we drove inland, off the flats that will be someday drowned by rising tides, past paddocks and gums and dry-sclerophyll, out the Springbrook Road and towards the rainforests, into an area my coastal friends saw as dark and foreign.
Our house, a low, flat, red-brick Frankenstein’s Monster of extensions and oddities, sat at the base of a long climb to the top of the mountain range. We called them mountains, but on any other continent they would pass only for hills. Still, they were enough to host their own climate, and my house sat just past a kind of bio-border, where, crossing over, you could see the colour of the trees change from the dusty browns of the coast to the dense greens of the rainforest. Up, way beyond us, the greens got darker still, and more menacing.
In my teenage mind, the official border between these bio-regions was the Mudgeeraba Creek. A low, stagnant thing during the winter, the creek would become an angry, screaming force in the wet season, echoing through the valley and sweeping downstream anyone that tried to cross it. We would be blocked off from the coast for days at a time. My school had a note on file – for a few wet weeks every year, the chances were high that my brother and I would be yanked out of class by our parents racing to get back over the bridge before it went under. I think the creek was like the land in Australia so often is: made beautiful for how little it cared for those that encountered it.
(A bit like Steve Smith’s batting, then.)
Next to the creek, Barry the Banana Man sold bananas from the back of his ute. If Barry had a family name, we never learned it. It was more likely to me then that his passport read ‘Banana Man’ than ‘Smith’ or ‘Johnson’. He was 60, or maybe 70, and grey and grizzled and solid. His Land Cruiser was always parked under the same towering eucalypt. He sold ladyfinger bananas, a name I always thought odd given how short and stubby they were: much more like Barry’s thick, calloused, hard digits than that of any lady I knew.
Barry grew his bananas somewhere up the valley. He’d select a crop and chop them down with his machete, throw the lot in the back of the ute, drive to the dirt patch by the creek, and settle in for the afternoon. He had once had a spot closer into town, but the local shopping centre chased him away.
So, for once a week for about a decade, Mum would pull in next to the creek on the way home, scooping loose change from her wallet. I’d jump out with her with my school uniform already in disarray, just so I could be outside and around the flies and the bananas and a man who, I sensed then, had had a life that mine would never resemble. I was in a kind of awe of him: of his immediacy in the world; his pure, unself-conscious authenticity. When I got older, I’d watch from the car with the radio on, too cool, or too scared, to allow a two-minute exchange of coins and bananas to do its work – the work of presenting one individual with another in all their depth and complexity.
I began writing this piece because I thought there was something important about Barry; something that I could excavate by writing. I didn’t know where to start so I started with what I remembered. I thought that by setting the scene you might feel as I feel when I think of him. I hoped, bizarrely, that you might have in one corner of your mind the sound of cicadas, or the earthy smell of running water, or the tea-like tannins of the gums.
I suppose the truth is I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember anything, really, about him. All that remains is what he represented, and represents. He was the type of hinterlander whose claim to a connection with the earth was borne out by the dirt in his clothes and his hair. He mixed his labour with the soil, not just his leisure. He was everything the rest of us aspired to be like but could never be, exactly because we aspired to it. I thought of him then as the last of that venerated pioneering generation.
Barry was for me what, I like to claim, Australia’s dominant white elite has in its mind when it talks about itself. I suspect many gentrified, urbanised Australians have a character like this lurking in their sub-conscious, giving picture to the desire to be authentic and genuine and hardworking and lacking in all pretense. Those Australians might consider this: by now, Barry is probably dead.